The Spices of Life


Cooking With Spices Like Salt, Pepper and Cinnamon

Once the chef has progressed beyond microwaving TV dinners and scorching hot dogs on the grill, he or she begins to thing about spices. Simple you say? Just sprinkle on a little salt and pepper and let her fly.

Whoa! A little salt? What type of salt are you going to use? You have your choice of: Bay salt, black salt, black sea salt, sea salt, canning salt, coarse salt, cooking salt, dairy salt, kosher salt, rock salt, sour salt, Korean bamboo salt, table salt, iodized salt, non-iodized salt and just plain sodium chloride. Which one will it be?

Let's start off with plain old table salt, non-iodized. What we have here is sodium chloride with some stuff added to prevent caking. The salt comes out of the giant salt domes that were formed long ago when seas evaporated. The salt is dissolved in water and then all impurities are removed. (We'll have more on those impurities later). That's it -- the most popular seasoning in the world. But don't let the anti-salt police get to you. The human body needs salt to function properly, especially in hot weather when salt is lost from the body through perspiration.

Iodized salt is regular table salt with potassium iodide added. The potassium iodide is to prevent goiter in those folks who don't get enough sea food products in their systems.

Sea salt is very popular with the natural food folks. Sea salt is made by evaporating sea water. Sea salt contains many trace elements and other things that are good for you. It will be coarser grained than regular table salt, and many say it has a better flavor. The impurities we mentioned earlier that are removed from regular salt are the plus ingredients found in sea salt. These "impurities" are more valuable than the salt, itself, and when removed from table salt, they are refined and used in dietary supplements.

Kosher salt is a coarse-grained salt that has no added ingredients.

Coarse salt is exactly that, coarse-grained regular salt. In this family is found rock salt, which is used to melt ice off roads and to drop the temperature in the ice-cream freezer. It's also used in cooking to make salt-crusted roast and as a bed for oysters Rockefeller. Dairy salt comes in this category, too. I was raised on a dairy, but we never did use any dairy salt. I don't know what its special use is, could be used in making cheese and salty butter.

Canning salt is also coarse grained. It's used for canning, and has no additives that will cause the canning liquid to become cloudy.

Black salt comes from India, and is really salty. I suppose some impurities are left in to give the dark color. Black sea salt comes from the Great Salt Lake. Nah, I'm just teasing. It comes from (where else?) the Black Sea.

Korean Bamboo salt is made from bamboo and is really, really salty.

Now that we have everything salted down, lets rub in a little pepper. This is what we commonly call black pepper. The pepper that is red and burns like fire is properly chile pepper.

Pepper comes from peppercorns. These are berry type fruits that grow in India and Indonesia. There are two varieties commonly used, Tellicherry and Lampong. Your everyday black pepper is finely ground black peppercorns. The peppercorns are also used whole and coarsely ground. This is the spice that sent all the early day sailors looking for the Spice Islands over toward the East. In those days it was more valuable than gold. Black pepper stimulates the appetite and aids digestion.

White pepper is nothing more than the black peppercorns with the dark outer husk removed. It has a milder taste and is used where you don't want black flakes floating around in your white sauce and such. White pepper is used in most modern chili recipes as it gives an "up front" bite. That is, you taste it immediately, and you don't have to wait on the heat as with cayenne.

Green peppercorns are unripe black peppercorns. They are preserved in brine and used in a variety of ways.

There is a pink peppercorn that comes from Madagascar that is not related to the above family. It has a sweet taste and is very expensive.

Every good cook needs a pepper mill or two on hand at all times. These are used for grinding the peppercorns. Freshly ground pepper is so much more pungent than the bottled or tinned variety. Fine grind black pepper from the supermarket starts to lose its potency as soon as the container is opened. In six months time it has hardly any taste at all. Peppercorns keep well in a tightly sealed container kept in a cool place. You can't go wrong storing them in the freezer. Green peppercorns need to be refrigerated as soon as they are opened.

It's also a lot less expensive to grind your own pepper. I have a spice grinder that I use to grind several tablespoons of peppercorns at a time for the shaker. I only grind what I'll use in a short time.

Let's talk about cinnamon. It's probably the third most popular spice. (Hey, onions and garlic are herbs, not spices. We'll do them in another chapter.) When I was growing up, cinnamon was the only "spice" in the house. It went on apple pies and on sweet rice. One small can lasted for years.

Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of certain tropical trees. The bark is stripped and then dried. Cinnamon sticks are simply pieces of tree bark. There are two varieties of cinnamon. The Ceylon cinnamon is a buff color and has a mild, sweet flavor. Cassia cinnamon is dark reddish brown and more pungent. It's our common cinnamon.

Cinnamon is used in everything from desserts to stews. A very versatile spice. Here's a hint for you gourmet coffee lovers: Put a tiny bit of ground cinnamon and a few grains of salt in your next cup of plain coffee. Turns it into a gourmet delight. Not a bad thing to put in hot chocolate either.

We've run out of room for this discussion. We'll pick it up where we left off next month. In the meantime, at your next dinner party ask your host or hostess what type of salt he or she uses. After the puzzled expression leaves his/her face, you can hold the floor for the rest of the evening with your knowledge of sodium chloride and its relatives.